Josef Von Sternberg Part 2

Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in Morocco (1930)

As promised in my previous post, here is a list of my favorite Josef Von Sternberg, starting with the great films with Marlene Dietrich (all of which are great) and continuing with his other projects.

Films with Marlene Dietrich

  • The Blue Angel, or Der Blaue Engel in Germany (1930)
  • Morocco (1930), with the French Foreign Legion in North Africa
  • Dishonored (1931), about Mata Hari
  • Shanghai Express (1932), a train ride through China during a civil war
  • Blonde Venus (1932), with Dietrich’s famous “Hot Voodoo” dance number
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934), my favorite, with Dietrich as Catherine the Great of Russia
  • The Devil Is a Woman (1935), Dietrich as a Spanish femme fatale a la Carmen

Silent Films

  • The Salvation Hunters (1924), a great beginning to Von Sternberg’s career
  • Underworld (1927), a superb gangster film
  • The Last Command (1928), Emil Jannings as a Czarist general who becomes an actor in Hollywood

Other Films

  • The Shanghai Gesture (1941), with Gene Tierney in a Chinese gambling casino
  • Duel in the Sun (1946), signed by King Vidor, co-directed with Von Sternberg

In closing, I want to recall a run-in I had at Dartmouth with an Anti-Semite who insisted that Von Sternberg was born in Brooklyn and that his real name was Jo Stern. As if that meant anything! It turns out that the “Von” in his name is a fantasy, but he was born in Europe and came to America as a child.

Josef Von Sternberg

German Poster for Der Blaue Engel (1930)

Now that Martine is out of my life for the time being, I am watching more television—though in an organized way. Last night, there was a Josef Von Sternberg festival on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). I had seen most of the films before, but wanted to see a couple of them again. First was The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel in German, 1930), which Von Sternberg filmed in Germany, working for the first time with Marlene Dietrich.  Next came The Shanghai Express (1932), set in China on a train ride through a civil war setting.

I visited the director at his house on Lindbrook in Westwood near the UCLA campus. At the time (the late 1960s), it was difficult to see old films unless they were screened on a 16mm or 35mm projector. I was looking to do my master’s thesis on Sternberg and hoped that somehow he had access to prints of his films that I could arrange to have screened for me. Although he did not, I was impressed by his graciousness. He had been considered to be one of Hollywood’s ogres, but he made some of the most beautiful films I had ever seen. Even his first picture, The Salvation Hunters (1924), was incredible, all the way through to his last The Saga of Anatahan (1952).

Along the way, he wrote an interesting autobiography called Fun in a Chinese Laundry (1965) and a novel called Daughters of Vienna (1922), which I hunted down and read through an inter-library loan.

I even knew the director’s son, Nicholas, whom I met frequently at UCLA at film screenings. Today he is a cinematographer in his own right.

Josef Von Sternberg

Josef Von Sternberg died in 1969, leaving behind a body of work that will never be equaled, especially as he filmed almost exclusively in black and white. There was a crowded, almost claustrophobic quality to his work. In Morocco (1930), he has a company of French Foreign Legionnaires walking in chiaroscuro along a narrow street under a series of crisscrossed laths. The train in Shanghai Express leaves Peiping (now Beijing) along a narrow street crowded with Chinese and their animals. He was a master of the cucoloris, a kind of cut-out for casting interesting shadows.

My friend Peter, who is himself a cinematographer, tells me that a film director had to see how the shot was lit at every stage of the actors’ movements or the camera’s. No one was better at this than Von Sternberg.

I will follow up this post with a list of my favorite Von Sternberg films in a day or two.


Favorite Films: The Salvation Hunters (1925)

The Pimp, The Girl, The Child, and The Boy

The first film that director Josef von Sternberg made in the U.S. cost only $5,000 and had only eight characters, none of whom bore anything but descriptive names. We meet the three main characters—The Boy, The Girl, and The Child—at the docks in San Pedro, California, where the center of attraction is a huge dredge sucking up mud from he harbor to deposit into a barge. The Boy (George K. Arthur) makes several attempts to get a job, but to no avail. The Girl (Georgia Hale) hangs around the docks and is hit upon by an oafish character called, simply, the Brute. The Child (Bruce Guerin) is a young boy who is beaten by the Brute until the Boy saves him from his clutches. The three drift together, a kind of centripetal relationship in which they care for and defend one another, but do not have a dime.

When a black cat suddenly jumps out of a closed chest full of harbor mud, the three decide to leave for the city, which presents no improvement. It is full of smoke, telephone wires, and broken-down slums. Here they attract the attention of a pimp (called in the credits simply The Man) who offers them a seedy apartment next to one of his women. He then hangs around trying to figure how how to draw The Girl into the trade.

Georgia Hale as The Girl

Georgia Hale was cast by Charley Chaplin as the leading lady in his next film, The Gold Rush (also 1925). In The Salvation Hunters, she is remarkably beautiful without any make-up whatsoever. When she thinks of hooking for The Man, she uses a burnt-out match the accentuate her eyebrows and borrows a dab of lipstick from her neighbor.

This is the second time I saw The Salvation Hunters. The first time was at UCLA in the period 1968-1972. I was initially so impressed by von Sternberg that I wanted to do my master’s thesis on him. In fact, I visited the director at his house in Westwood around 1969 (the year in which he died)  and asked if he had access to any prints of his films which I could screen. He was actually very kind as a host, though his reputation is as something of an ogre. My friend Joe Adamson, who introduced the film at Cinecon 53 today, told of his answering questions of his painterly vision in film when he had taught at UCLA by saying, simply, “I did it because I am an artiste.” He wrote a book about his career entitled Fun in a Chinese Laundry, in which he takes a couple of hundred pages before mentioning, in a subordinate clause, that he was married.

Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969)

Von Sternberg is best known today for the films he made with his protegeé, Marlene Dietrich. Some of these are among the greatest films ever made. Included among them are:

  • The Blue Angel (1930)
  • Morocco (1930)
  • Dishonored (1931)
  • Shanghai Express (1932)
  • Blonde Venus (1932)
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934), my favorite of his films
  • The Devil Is a Woman (1935)

That said, I think all his films are worth seeing. Even if you may not like them, they will change the way you experience film.

I cannot but think that The Salvation Hunter was something of a flop in 1920s America: It depicted a European sense of allegory and universality (a la Murnau’s Sunrise) and poverty. It is not a film that is presented purely for your entertainment. But it is one of the best films made in that decade, along with several other von Sternberg offerings such as Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928), and The Docks of New York (1928).